Traps. Monsters and Treasure. These are the three things that are the signature occupants of fantasy dungeons. Today I want to focus on traps.
Long ago I heard the story of a brilliant party destroying trap. It was the a wall decoration of a carved devil face with its mouth open, the inside was pure blackness. The blackness was caused by a small sphere of annihilation being set inside the mouth, so anything that went into the hole just ceased to be- no saving throw, no damage, just gone. There was no reason a party needed to interact with the object. It didn’t block their way- but curiosity being what it was the story went that someone stuck their 10 foot pole into the hole. 10 foot pole was gone. The rogue stuck his head in to see what happened to the pole and lost his head. They then tried to attack “the thing that attacked the now headless party member” i.e. hole and lost a weapon. I would have thought that this would have made them learn the lesson, but the party proceeded to reach in after the weapon and loose limbs etc. This continued until the party was completely maimed or killed. Years later I would find out that this story was from a trap in the Tomb of Horrors module, so I ran out and bought it almost immediately.
Traps fall into two varieties. Those that are there are those that are hidden like the hidden pit trap in the floor or poison dart in a treasure chest. And those that are obvious like the green faced devil from the Tomb of Horrors and can be readily observed by the players who can choose to avoid the object or investigate at their own peril.
While both have their place how I approach them when it comes to game mechanics is different. One of the primary roles of a rogue in the party is to detect and disarm traps. I use these for the more common, hidden trap. So to speed up game play and make life (a little) easier for the rogues. As long as the party is moving at adventuring speed, taking their time to observe their surroundings, I give them an automatic roll for checking for traps when they enter a room. I leave it up to the player if they want to make this roll every time or if I should just make it for them as I give out room descriptions etc. This way the rogue’s player doesn’t have to tediously ask with every door and room if there are traps. I’ll afford the rogue a 2nd check for traps roll if they are specifically inspecting the item in question, again I don’t make them ask for checking traps, we just assume they are as long as they aren’t madly grabbing things and stuffing them into bags. I just tell them to roll and let me know if they beat the minimum threshold we establish. This way they can take care of all the dice rolling while the other party members are giving their actions and it keeps things moving smoothly.
The second type of trap is there to be solved as a puzzle or only activates by direct interaction. These are not nearly as common and I don’t tell them that these exist even if they succeed in their roll. The trade off is that it is always part of the room description. So they know it is there- just not what it does. Think of the dart shooting walls from Indiana Jones. It was obvious something was up in the room between the holes in the walls and the pressure plated floor. So that would be a description of the room for the entire party. Solving the problem isn’t just a disarm traps roll, it is creative thinking to walk carefully across the floor, have the wizard levitate across, or take another path through the dungeon.
While these types of traps are my favorite they take a lot more work to set up. One of the reasons I like them is that they can be figured out by the non-rogues in the party as well.